Black Power -- Rhetoric to Reality


The Kennedy Institute meeting room was filled and quickly grew crowded. Students moved their chairs closer to the conference table.

"This should be good," one student said, turning and nudging the one next to him.

"Yeah," commented the other student impassively. "I hope someone asks him about this 'revolution thing,'" he added, nervously fingering his copy of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton.

At the head of the conference table, Charles V. Hamilton looked over his notes from an earlier meeting. Lighting his pipe and leaning back in his chair, Hamilton began speaking to the study group. His voice was characteristically calm and deliberate as it sliced through the tension of the room.

"It is indeed unfortunate that in a most crucial and frustrating year, the needs and concerns of black people in America have been pre-empted by a Presidential election and a war. For those whites who didn't know or didn't want to know the reasons for black people's frustrations we now have the Kerner Report. It only says what black people have known all along: that the processes and structures of American politics are illegitimate to the black community. A further marginal extension of the welfare state is not the answer. We will no longer be absorbed by the integrationist ethic. This has nothing to do with 'honkey' talk or 'burn baby, burn.' This directly and specifically means the alleviation of black dependency; it is incumbent upon black people to control their own communities, because if they don't somebody else will."


The impact of Hamilton's remarks lingered heavily in the smoke-filled air above the conference table. While some students began quickly scribbling notes and questions, Hamilton continued, his voice taking on a matter-of-fact tone and the tiredness of his two days of meetings.

This study group meeting was one of many that took place during Hamilton's two-day, Kennedy Institute-sponsored visit to Cambridge. With the release several months ago of Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America, which he co-authored with Stokely Carmichael, Hamilton has emerged as one of the principal Black Power theorists. At Harvard, the 18th campus he has visited since September, Hamilton said he wanted to pursue relevant political dialogue by beginning "at the point where the book ends."

Hamilton correctly predicted that his arrival at Harvard would be immediately met by questions dealing with his "political descriptions of America and politically prescriptive formulations of Black Power." Many students referred to the critical reviews Black Power had received by Fred Powledge in the New York Times and Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books. For some the book was a disappointment; it was not radical enough--it established violence as disfunctional in the course of Black Power politics. Others complained that the book was not programatic--it gave the crux of the problem with only vague outlines of solutions.

Hamilton wasted no time with polemics. His comments were directed at students or faculty, and to the point. Hamilton's emphasis throughout the meetings and discussions was upon "independent, Black Power politics."

"Stokely and I didn't write that book to give neat, pat answers to problems centuries in the making. We have simply tried to create an ideological framework in which a number of different kinds of independent; black political activity are possible. The ultimate solutions to the problems of black people must come through political victories--black political victories. Political strategy -- programs, if you will-don't come from books. Our work may act as a catalyst to political strategizing. But the real answers must come from the indigenous political situations where programs take form. Black Power can't relate specifically to every political situation. Priorities differ from community to community. If Stokely and I had tried to be any more specific or programatic we would have been relevant to a few specific places and irrelevant to the rest of the national black community. Books alone aren't the answer. That's why I spend so much time in Newark and Gary and Chicago's Third Congressional District."

In seminars, study groups, luncheons and dinners, Hamilton continually emphasized and spelled out the requirements for bringing political power to the black community.

"I have no interest in redirecting the major parties. Black people can no longer just be interested in an incremental increase in goods and services; our interest and need lies in the protracted process of decision making. We need new and legitimate channels and structures and radically new programs which blacks control. There is a 'procrastination component' built into the party process which simply means we must take political initiative. The crucial task for Black Power politics lies in politicizing a people who have suffered political disenfranchisement for centuries. Black Power politics is the first step in a process to change the social and political regard of the black community towards political hegemony."

Hamilton came to Harvard in the midst of the public controversy surrounding the Kerner Report. As a result, recurring questions centered around urban unrest and violence as a component in the strategy of independent, Black Power politics.

'We know that there is enough pentup frustration to literally destroy our major cities--LBJ told us that on national television," Hamilton grimly asserted at an afternoon luncheon meeting. But, the analytic Hamilton succinctly added, "Violence emanating from the black community can be seen in several ways. Riots are an expression: They release frustrations and tensions. But they are functional only in the Fanonish sense of therapy. The problem with riots are first, that they get black people killed and secondly, that they are not politically instrumental. The same people who are involved in riots aren't around for political organization later. But how can I condemn riots when they happen to be the only form of dissent black people have to protest the estranged position they hold in this society?"

Hamilton went further to discount the possibility of an "armed black revolution," claiming that "riots are not preludes to revolution and the notion of black separatism is not at all pervasive in the ghetto. But the import of riots must be understood in terms of the grave psychological dilemma which blacks in America are breaking out of." Taken to its conclusion, Hamilton's implication is that blacks are through with the self-demeaning black mentality which is reinforced institutionally by the subtle and pervasive racism of which the Kerner Report spoke.

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